Asturias Spain, Billy's Bridge, Christiana Vivas, Evalina Weatherford Gonzalez, Father of Fort Myers, Fort Myers, founder of Fort Myers, Joe Vivas, Key West, Manuel Gonzalez, Manuel S. Gonzalez, Manuel's Branch, Pilona Spain, Sergio de la Vega, The Veranda
Early this year, the governor of Florida issued a proclamation in commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the founding of Fort Myers by Captain Manuel A. González. It’s official. Manuel González is the father of Fort Myers. But who was he? Where did he come from?
He Came from Spain
In 1847, Manuel Antonio González y Mónez, a 14-year-old boy from the rugged mountain village of Piloña in the northern Spanish province of Asturias, departed from the Bay of Biscay and voyaged across the Atlantic Ocean to join his cousin, Sergio de la Vega, in the Spanish colony of Cuba. Whatever his plan or purpose, we know only that he arrived soaking wet. The story is that his ship ran onto a reef off the coast of Cuba, that a crewman swam to shore with a line of rope and that the passengers and crew made their way to shore by means of the rope. Among all the unanswered questions about this boy’s past and the next years of his life in Cuba, we can safely assume one fact—that the boy who waded ashore in Cuba after a 5000-mile voyage from Spain, his eyes stinging with salt water, was one gutsy kid.
Apparently, while in Cuba, he became a competent seaman, probably working aboard a ship that ran trade goods to and from Key West. At the time, Key West was one of the busiest ports in the U.S. Bustling with fishing, turtling and salt manufacturing operations, scores of cigar factories and the ship chandleries and warehouses of the wrecking and salvage industry, Key West in the 1850s was reputedly the wealthiest city, per capita, in the United States. Cuba, on the other hand, was in political crisis. It was not long before young Manuel made the decision to emigrate.
Compass Heading North-Northwest
Having plotted his course, Manuel tacked with the wind of opportunity and by 1855, he owned his own sailing vessel and was running supplies to military installations up and down the west coast of Florida. The third Florida (Seminole) War had started. From Fort Brooke in Tampa to Fort Myers on the Caloosahatchee, Florida was bristling with soldiers.
The men stationed at Fort Myers loved to see this kid coming. His arrival meant fresh cigars, mail from home, and pretty glass bottles swirling with the amber liquors of Cuba. Seeing the familiar sloop approaching, they’d lope out onto the wharf to meet it, the flash of young González’s smile encouraging their cheers.
For the Love of a Woman
We do not know when or where Manuel met Evalina. She was a Weatherford, of English descent, born on Green Turtle Cay in the Bahamas. It is probable that they married around 1860, for their first child, Manuel Sequismond González, was born in 1861. Possibly in preparation for his marriage, Manuel became a U.S. citizen in 1859.
In 1863, Fort Myers was reactivated as a stronghold against enemy operations in southwest Florida. Confederate cattlemen were attempting to ship cattle north to supply the Confederacy and to run the Union blockade south to Cuba, where, among slave-holding planters, the Confederacy had strong support.
If 30-year-old Manuel González was again running supplies to Fort Brooke and Fort Myers, he would now have cast a more appraising eye upon Fort Myers. With 57 buildings of sturdy yellow pine, including houses, stables, sutlery, bakery, barracks and a beautiful hospital, all neatly arranged on lawns bordered with shelled walkways, it was like a little town. Neat as a pin. Pretty as a picture. When the troops left, if he could get there first, he could establish a family estate that, in his wildest dreams, the boy from Piloña could not have imagined.
The Civil War officially ended in June, 1865, but was 9 months later before the Gonzálezes could wrap up their affairs in Key West and make the move.
The plan was that their good friend, Joe Vivas, would join them in the venture. Joe and Christiana Stirrup, the 16-year-old Bahamian orphan that Manuel and Evalina had adopted, were soon to be married. The two couples would homestead the land together.
The men, including Evalina’s brother, John Weatherford, would go ahead, drop Manuel off to hold down the fort (so to speak), then return for the women. In the meantime, Evalina and Christiana were to pack up everything they could possibly hope to take with them. To give Evalina one less thing to worry about (with 2-year-old toddling around, she had her hands full enough), Manuel took 5-year-old Manuel with him.
The Best Laid Plans
They arrived on February 21, 1866, to find that Fort Myers lay in ruins. Scavengers had left only the skeletal remains of a few buildings, scattering the debris of their assault across the entire acreage of the post. The gardens were trampled, the shell walkways smeared over the grass. The demolition of the fort seemed to have been motivated as much by vengeance as need. Scowling, Manuel walked around what was left of the house that had belonged to the fort’s commanding officer. “Ay, Dios mío,” he whispered. Much of the siding had been ripped away and the windows and doors, instead of being carefully removed, had been hacked from their frames. All the floor boards were gone.
González sighed. He looked down into his son’s questioning eyes. “We have work to do, Niño.” “We’ve got to fix up this house for Mama.”
Putting Down Roots
Thus began the city of Fort Myers, with a broken house and ruined garden. But within months the house was whole and sweet potatoes, melons, pumpkins and vegetables were pushing up from the soil of the garden. Manuel and Joe had thrown up a small building to serve as a trading post, stocking it with beads, gun powder, calico, tobacco and food stuffs to exchange with the local Indians for deer and alligator hides, which they sold or traded for supplies in Key West. In time, the men picked up a little extra money acting as interpreters for Cuban cattle buyers out at the cattle shipping pens at Punta Rassa.
The population of Fort Myers more than doubled when 2 more couples arrived with children. Suddenly, Fort Myers needed a school. Evalina asked Manuel to bring school books back from Key West, turned one of the rooms in her house into a school room, and made her kids, Manny and Mary, and Janet Clay and Josephine Powell sit their little fannies down and pay attention.
The settlement of Fort Myers seemed to be putting down roots.
And then the surveyors arrived. Government men.
Tacking with the Wind
They showed up in December of 1872. They had been sent to map out the Caloosahatchee River region. Like any visitors at the time (mostly cattlemen), they were offered the hospitality of the big González home. After supper the first night, the surveyors explained to Manuel and Evalina that once the survey was complete, they could file an application for 160 acres; by provision of the Homestead Act of 1862, all they had to do was farm the land for 5 years and they’d receive free and clear title to it. No problem. They had no intention of going anywhere. Ah, but actually, they were told, a man named Evans was waiting to claim the entire settlement by virtue of having been the first to improve the site back before the war. Evans had been here in 1859 and ’60 and intending to stay, had planted tropical trees, shrubs and coffee plants.
Captain González always knew when to make his move. By the time ex-Confederate Major Evans returned with a deed to the land, the González family was gone. González had filed claim on the land from present-day Jackson Street to a stream west of the settlement and moved his family into the old sentry post by the stream.
Over the next 3 decades, Captain Gonzalez would sell off parcels of his land to the commercial and home builders who were growing Fort Myers while he, smiling, piloted supplies to settlements up and down the river.
His son, Manny, who had handed his papa nails to lay floor boards in their first house, would build many of the finest homes in Fort Myers, including a new one for Mama in 1902, along with a fine home next door for his own family. (The two houses, now joined, form The Veranda Restaurant at Broadway and Second Street.)
Manny would also build the first bridge across Billy Bowlegs Creek (1898), lay the first sidewalks in fort Myers (1906), and build our first Yacht and Country Club (1908).
Captain Manuel González died on February 25, 1902. The Press reported that as Evalina leaned over her husband’s casket, her final look at him was “most touching.” We can only imagine that in her flow of memory, she saw not the face of a corpse, but the warm, living face of a boy waving from helm of a sailboat, his smile flashing like sunlight on water.
The only monument to Manuel González in Fort Myers is a plaque on the bridge over the stream that we call “Manuel’s Branch.” It seems an inadequate memorial, but it’s perfect, because Manuel’s Branch flows into the Caloosahatchee River, which in turn, flows to sea. He’d like that.